The state Senate majority leader was in Havre Sunday, asking for support of an initiative that would change how voters elect justices to the Supreme Court.
Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said he has been traveling along the Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner circuit to talk to Republicans about Referendum 119, which would split the state into districts for electing justices.
The elections for Supreme Court justices now are held statewide, with two seats up in this year’s election.
Three of the candidates for one of those seats, Elizabeth Best, Laurie McKinnon and Ed Sheehy, were at the dinner Sunday night.
Essmann said that if candidates go to every Republican and Democratic dinner, they might see about 10,000 people. That means the election turns into a war of advertising, with the person with the most money winning, he said.
“We feel that local elections, by splitting the state up into seven districts with equal populations, will allow the people of the state of Montana to know their candidate better and make a better decision, ” Essmann said. “They will know their district court judge, they will know their local lawyer and we will have an opportunity for every region of the state to have a voice on the Supreme Court. ”
Essmann said most of the justices now on the court lived in Helena or Great Falls before joining the court.
Two justices on the court, Fred Weber and John Warner, were from Havre. Weber retired in 1995 and Warner retired in 2009.
Some have complained that the purpose of the referendum is to try to add more conservative jurors to the court by ensuring some come from the eastern part of the state. A group that says the referendum violates the state constitution — including some members of the 1972 state Constitutional Convention — have challenged the referendum in court.
The sponsors of the referendum put it on the June primary ballot, rather than the November general election.